The Igbo and Death of a Queen*—Lasisi Olagunju
*The Igbo and Death of a Queen*
By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 12 September, 2022)
On Tuesday, September 6, Liz Truss met Queen Elizabeth at Balmoral, Scotland. We saw her with the queen in a warm handshake as she became Britain's historic third female head of government. The world clapped and congratulated her. Two days later, the Queen was dead. That is death. Sometimes it comes swiftly and stealthily; some other times with lightning and thunder. Whichever it is, it is the living who tells the taste, not the dead. Like the Belarusian novel of the Second World War, 'The Dead Feel No Pain.' Elizabeth II was a strong woman whose strength lay in floating with the sea of a changing world. She was a woman who had under her skirt, and in her bag, more than a lady's content. Her ancestor, Elizabeth I, who reigned for 45 years and died on 24 March, 1603 at the age of 69, reportedly said of herself: “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach, and the cock of a king.” It is the same with this departed queen. The world felt her soft masculinity for 70 years and, at her death, poured out in emotional millions. Those who experienced her 'cock' in Nigeria have been speaking too and it is with the distinct character of the Nigerian flavour.
Because we are not a normal people in Nigeria, our contribution to a global pool of discourse on the departed has been from a polluted tributary. The death of a celebrated 96-year-old citizen of the world drew daggers from one Uju Anya, a US assistant professor with an anger rooted in the 30-month Biafran war. In a tweet, she described the departed queen as “the chief monarch of a thieving, raping genocidal empire.” In another, she accused the queen's government of contributing to the death of half of her family, ostensibly during the Nigerian civil war. She was bitter that Her Majesty's government supported Nigeria against her attempted country from 1967 to January 1970. She, therefore, spat phlegm of fire on the casket of the departed queen and wished pains for the dead. English comedian and actor, Ricky Gervais, said “when you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It is only painful for others. The same applies when you are stupid.” The stupid is so called because they lack capability to know of their own lack of capacity. Uju got loads of replies; some came as barrel bombs against her person, her grouse and her house. I also felt that her choices, words and manners, were gross, very inappropriate. But she got huge endorsements from persons who called her their kin. She is a professor of Linguistics and she thinks cursing a dead 'foe' would heal her of a very bad history of war, defeat and the attendant losses! Sobbing and weeping have measures; when tears flood the eyes and blind the bereaved, they lose the patting of sympathy. The world noticed Anya's statement and its inappropriateness and reacted. Founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, read her tweets and tweeted: “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don't think so. Wow.” I don't think so too that she has not made poorer all who share the human space with her. Her verbal (and finger) incontinence will continue to rub off badly on her and the soul of her essence; the fabric of her grievance is rent too, whatever it was.
Our ancestors ask us to always remember that whatever faces us is turning its back on someone somewhere. When Uju attacked the late queen and called her an enemy of her people, it did not occur to her that an Igbo man was, at a time, secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations headed by that queen. I watched the old man, Emeka Anyaoku, on television and he had very many good, great things to say of the departed queen. Igbo people anywhere are very enterprising people. But my people have a saying about strong, enterprising people who talk too much about their supposed strength and who lack good strategy. They say such are the fathers of the weak. The world is a forever battlefield; you cannot win there by turning everyone into your enemy.
Probably, a consequence of Queen Elizabeth's death is a reopening of the Nigerian wound. Nigeria fought a civil war which ended in January 1970. The Igbo who lost the war believe it has not ended. They think they deserve explanations and apologies from Nigeria for defeating them. They also believe other parts of Nigeria are still fighting them. But that is not true; if a war is on in Nigeria today, it is another war which the Igbo need to properly define and join others to win. If it is not true that the last war ended in 1970, why was it that just nine short years after the war, an Igbo man, Alex Ekwueme, became the vice president of Nigeria? The vice president of any country in a presidential democracy is one death away from the top job. Is it also not true that twelve years after the war, Emeka Ojukwu, the strong man who led the Igbo into that war, came back from exile and joined forces with the conservative north against other parts of the country? The Biafran leader was pardoned on May 18, 1982 by President Shehu Shagari. Exactly one month after, on June 18, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu landed in Nigeria at 11.55 a.m. Riding in an open-roof SUV from the airport, he was triumphant in his entry - an exact opposite of how he left the country in January 1970. A report of that journey said that before he boarded his Boeing 727 aircraft from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he was on exile for twelve years, Ojukwu shouted “Long live Nigeria.” The man came back home and built his hut in the compound of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN). His people clapped and danced and endorsed his very 'wise' decision; he (and they) subsequently donated iron straws and reeds, poles and ropes to build an enduring structure for the enemy.
Nigeria is a country of victims. Wherever you turn, you see them, and that include all of us. Britain under Queen Elizabeth II took many decisions that, till date, victimised millions in Nigeria. One of those decisions is what the late Alaafin Lamidi Adeyemi described as this unfair, carnivorous union of lions and deers. But we can continue to fight and engage the system in a way that our right would not become wrong. Again, what we call victim is villain in the books of the other side. I wish those still angry about the civil war would accept that people died on both sides. There was a Colonel Victor Banjo, a Yoruba officer who was executed by his friend, Ojukwu. His offence was that he stalled a Biafran takeover of the West. His family and friends would not forget, but they've moved on. We cannot build a life of peace with the closed mind of recriminations. So, let Elizabeth take her bow in peace without further shelling. Besides, kingship comes with baggage - good and bad - each one drawing from the history of what they inherited. Elizabeth II became queen at 25 and died at 96; her ancestor, Elizabeth I, became queen at 25 and died at 69. Numerologists will have their things to say about these patterns of entry and closure and their values. Conjugal and marital scandals and controversies are never far from palaces. Elizabeth I, at the beginning of her reign, told the English parliament in 1559 that she would live, rule and die a virgin: “this shall be for me sufficient that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.” And she did. But why? History says she dreaded marriage or was appalled by what her father made of the institution of marriage. This is how a historian, Scott Newport, put it: “Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, married a total of six times, and as the famous mnemonic rhyme goes, they were divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Of those beheaded of treason and adultery was her own mother, Anne Boleyn, on 19th May, 1536, when Elizabeth was not quite three years old. However, although Elizabeth was too young to understand the ‘speed and ruthfulness of Queen Anne’s downfall’ she was fully aware of her stepmother, Catherine Howard’s execution on 13th February, 1542, when she was eight years old. Once Catherine was arrested, her father ‘refused even to let her plead in her own defence.’ Of her four other stepmothers, two were divorced and cast aside; one died at childbirth and the other barely survived due to an implication of suspected heresy, months before her own father’s death. Therefore, Elizabeth’s views of matrimony with regard to her own father’s marriages can only have been connected to alienation or death, whether by childbirth or beheading.”
Beyond what the 'Biafran' woman said about the late queen, other Nigerians have also had quality time to discuss the departed sovereign and how she handled issues of matrimony in the palace. She had a wonderful married life; there were no (known) scandals involving her or her husband, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh. But with her household, the world has had a mouthful. Her son, the new king, married Diana Spencer after dating her sister, Sarah. He later divorced Diana in a very bitter way to marry his old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles, another man's wife. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a Paris car crash on 31 August, 1997, the world dropped bouquets of anger at the Queen's high grounds. Discussions on Diana and Elizabeth II, her son, her grandsons and their own issues will continue till history says enough. And history will never say so.
Now, everything, good or bad, when they get to Nigeria, they acquire federal character. And, you know, human experience is an elephant in a city of the blind. Each citizen reacts according to the part they feel. There are those who benefited from what aches Uju Anya and her Biafra 'family' and they are not quiet too. One Bashir El-Rufai, said to be the son of a northern governor, also went to Twitter to post a message of appreciation to the departed queen and her British empire. He thanked the departed for handing over Nigeria and everything in it to his north: “The British colonial establishment placed the north at the peak of power in my dear country. For that, I will always be indebted to the British Royal Crown and (for) the method of indirect rule for my people and our dear monarchs. Rest In Peace, Queen Elizabeth.” Like the Uju woman, Bashir also got replies, some from the north, supportive; many from the south, damning. There are those who replied him with photos of hopeless street children and of war and want - all taken in the north. They ask the governor's son to what good the inheritance has benefited the inheritor of this slice of the British cake. You know how the wise looks at an ostrich who buries its head in the ground and thinks it has escaped from predators? The truth is that the ostrich, as it stands, is an easy prey. When flightless birds celebrate the origin of their problems, they mock their own intelligence, endanger themselves and imperil their species. What the British built for our north is a palace without peace; a throne of thorns. I hope Bashir and all who celebrate what he said know that the market is almost over.